Referees and judges in football, baseball and tennis are like shadows, and don’t make us strongly aware of their existence. But we sports fans know how important they are in creating great matches. Unfair refereeing in a football game or poor judging of whether the ball is “in” or “out” in tennis can really ruin a game.
Iceland is a democratic republic which is governed by the rule of law. Though we might be imperfect, we do a fairly good job of this. Citizens here are required to follow the rules that the nation decides and provides, as are foreigners who are staying here with a residence permit, and in spite of some exceptions, most of us immigrants respect the laws of the nation and are trying to follow the rules.
There are several things that I want to point out by making an analogy between the immigrant experience and a sports match, but first I will take up the importance of “good refereeing”. I mean here, with the word “refereeing,” the way that we handle immigrants’ need to be shown what to do in order to live and work in Iceland. And the referee here is the Directorate of Immigration (Útlendingastofnun).
My work is all about immigrant life in Iceland. Administrative or judicial matters aren’t a direct part of my work, yet I am involved in them every now and then. I have observed some examples of “bad refereeing” by the Directorate of Immigration in the last few years.
Let’s take first some examples where the referee has done a bad job of explaining the rules to the players:
1. Two men from an EU nation came to Iceland to work as interns at an institute for a little over six months as part of their university studies. They went to the Directorate of Immigration and filled out the form to apply for a residence permit. After waiting for two hours to speak with someone, they were told that they didn’t have to apply because they were only staying for a short time. After they returned to their office, their boss wondered if this was really true, and called the Directorate of Immigration. It turned out that these fellows were in fact supposed to apply for the residence permit after all. They had to go back and repeat the whole process from the beginning.
2. A man from outside the EU lives here under a permanent residence permit. He had to go back home to take care of his sick parents and wound up staying longer than he planned. I cautioned him that he was supposed to tell the Directorate of Immigration if he would be away longer than 18 months. His daughter contacted the Directorate, but was told he didn’t need to do anything. My colleague wanted to confirm this, and asked again. It turned out that he in fact did need to file a statement with the Directorate that he intended to return to Iceland.
3. An Asian student came to Iceland to study for one year. Her residence permit was valid only for the first semester, after which she had to renew it. The Directorate of Immigration’s website said that she had to submit information about her “success in her studies.” She got a letter from the school saying that she was doing fine. The Directorate of Immigration replied that what “success in her studies” really meant was that she had to submit her first semester grades, which were not ready yet. This was nowhere explained on the website. They also required her to resubmit proof of her finances, even though the bank statement she had originally submitted showed enough funds for the entire year.
These are just a few examples but the point is clear. One officer says A, and then another officer says B, and the real answer can even be C! Such incidents happen so often that I feel like “Ah, not again…,” almost without being surprised. This lax attitude towards giving people the correct information was not a problem a few years ago, when the Directorate of Immigration was very flexible and always willing to consider each immigrant’s individual circumstances. Now that the Directorate is stricter, immigrants need to be clearly told the rules of the game.
Another sort of problem arises when the referee does not treat the players with dignity and respect, or forgets how important the referee is as a moral example to the players. At the Directorate of Immigration, there is, for example, an unwilling attitude at reception, and one must stand and talk to the staff through a window rather than sitting down in mutual respect at a table. If you call, you must wait for a long time on the phone and sometimes you get cut off. Surprisingly often, the Directorate loses application forms and supporting documents, including difficult-to-replace originals from the applicant’s home country.
I would like to emphasise this next point very strongly: In every single case of mis-refereeing by the Directorate, it is we immigrants who get yellow cards and even red cards. And then we are “out” of the game.
I am not trying to make a personal attack on the Directorate. I hardly know the staff personally and on principle I try to avoid making their acquaintance. I am trying to point out the fact that a lot of undesirable mis-refereeing is really happening, and I want the Directorate to make some effort to reduce those cases.
This doesn’t mean at all that the staff in the office is unfriendly or irresponsible. I know that the Directorate is making an effort to bridge the gap between the office and the immigrants, among other ways by hiring staff of foreign origin. I know that the number of cases that the office has to cope with is increasing enormously.
Nevertheless, that should not be an excuse for misguiding immigrants or handling them unfairly.
My broader criticism goes in a different direction from the Directorate itself. It is first to the authorities in the Icelandic government who are charged with the fair and appropriate administration of the laws in this country. If it is obvious that the Directorate of Immigration is under too much of a burden, why haven’t these authorities acted to maintain the quantity and quality of the Directorate’s staff? Maybe in part because they aren’t hearing any complaints by immigrants.
And this leads me to a second broader criticism. Why do we never hear complaints about the Directorate of Immigration in any public forum, even though they are in the air all around us? This is because in most of the cases we immigrants are not in a secure enough position to make public complaints free of risk. Who dares to offend the referee who is holding one’s destiny in his hands? But this keeps us voiceless. I think the responsible authorities and the public media should pay more attention to the existence of immigrants and should try to dig up what is really in our minds instead of asking the stereotypical questions of “How do you like Iceland?” or “Is Icelandic difficult to learn?”.
A good referee is not a gift from Heaven. S/He is created by society and is living proof of that society’s democracy, freedom and maturity.
Toshiki Toma is the pastor for immigrants in Iceland.